• The Past and Future of Hindustani Music

    Aneesh Pradhan

    October 5, 2019

    Aneesh Pradhan is a renowned performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. In his latest book Chasing the Raag Dream: A Look into the World of Hindustani Music, he talks about Hindustani music at its present juncture, where tradition is being challenged by changing mindsets, new technology and an economic reality vastly different from that prevalent until the last decade of the twentieth century.

    The book traces the evolution of the Hindustani music world to its present context, with a view to finding possible pathways to ensure a healthier future for it.

    The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to the book.

    Image courtesy: Amazon

    The comprehension and construction of the past is often clouded by a sense of nostalgia and by prejudices or personal choices, giving rise to dogmatic positions about what should constitute ‘pure and authentic’ music. This underestimates artistic impulses and ignores social, political and economic processes, which shape the trajectory of music-making. A careful perusal of the recordings made through the twentieth century shows that there is no single, monolithic and absolute Hindustani music aesthetic. Instead, it changed over the period, almost unnoticeably. The problem is further compounded by the reality that this music has essentially been an oral tradition, thus giving rise to multiple interpretations. Misguidedly, a celebration of this diversity is sometimes overtaken by a dogmatic approach. This is similar to the approach to Indian culture. As stated by historian Romila Thapar:

    The historical process is decisive to the definition of culture, yet the understanding of Indian culture is poorly served in this respect, for it is assumed that the historical process has a static interpretation and has remained broadly unchanged over the last century, or, that culture is a one-time event which has survived untampered with from the past to the present.1

    The root of the present yearning for the hallowed past lies in the nineteenth-century discourse on Hindustani music, led by members of the educated middle class. Fired by nascent nationalism, they sought to project a pan-Indian cultural identity which would prove India’s ‘glorious’ legacy and ‘golden’ past. To this effect, they strove to establish the antiquity of this musical tradition and to promote this music as a symbol of ancient Indian heritage. This endeavour was in keeping with the orientalist approach that sought to link different aspects of Indian society with an ancient exotic Hindu-Sanskritic civilization. These claims of antiquity ignored the contribution of Muslim royal patrons, musicians; or the contribution of Muslim musicians was acknowledged grudgingly. Instead, they were regarded as an illiterate lot who had been incapable of comprehending theoretical information enshrined in Sanskrit treatises and had therefore caused a disjunct between age-old theoretical norms and current musical practice.2

    The forcefulness with which this interpretation of the past was reiterated has deeply influenced successive generations. It is not surprising, therefore, that most people and well-known institutions hold fast on to the impression that Hindustani music is a tradition that has deeply Hindu religious or spiritual connections with an ancient past dating back several thousand years. Raised to the level of an absolute truth, any interpretation to the contrary invites scorn and disdain, as it would shake the belief that we have been living with for many years and would also challenge those who matter in the world of Hindustani music now.

    This brief description of the current environment of Hindustani music provides only a glimpse of the incredible maze of contradictions that lie behind the music that so many appreciate. No doubt, concerns about the present and future of this music have grown in the past few decades. The ring of urgency sounded in certain quarters today is probably due to the speed with which radical changes have been brought about in the last decade of the twentieth century and the early part of the twenty-first century, and their widespread repercussions. While accepting that change is inescapable, Ravi Shankar observed:

    Our music has always gone through changes, becoming more and more developed and sophisticated through centuries. We today feel the onslaught of disturbing elements because the changes are very rapid for us to adjust [sic]. Those days the media of communication was limited to live concerts.

    Then came the gramophone, the radio and then the television. But now with the age of computers and instant access it is really overwhelming. I am not saying that this is good or bad but it is a fact. Every kind of music has and in fact is going through changes more rapidly now than ever before, and who am I to say if it’s for better or worse.3

    Indeed, technological changes have made access to Hindustani music much easier today than was the case several decades ago. Technology has equipped music lovers with information about the music that performers, teachers, and government and non- government institutions should not underestimate. As stated by Ashok Da. Ranade (1937–2011):

    [R]epeated and massive exposure to music has changed the type and quality of Patronage. Though our audiences cannot be considered knowledgeable they are no more ignorant! One cannot fool this audience. These audiences now are able to know the artist’s repertoire, and the depth of his knowledge.4

    One would imagine that easy access to information has made it possible for other stakeholders to also apprise themselves of one another’s activities and work towards a healthy interaction. Regrettably, however, various groups act in isolation and often take unilateral decisions, which are counterproductive for Hindustani music.

    1 Romila Thapar, Cultural Transaction and Early India: Tradition and Patronage (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 7-8
    2 The efforts of sections from the Indian intelligentsia to establish Hindustani music as a symbol of national culture with an ancient Hindu-Sanskritic past, particularly in the context of the educated middle class in colonial Bombay, have been examined in Aneesh Pradhan, Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay (Gurgaon: Three Essays Collective, 2014), pp. 1-2, 47-49, 71-72, 87-88.
    3 http://www.ravishankar.org/reflections, accessed on 14 February 2019.
    4 Ashok Ranade, 'Gandharvas and Musical Changes — Attempt at Cultural Perspectives' in World of Gandharvas, eds. Balwant Joshi, Dr Dilip Inamdar, Prof. Charudatta Bhagwat, Dr S.S. Gore (New Bombay: Sound Library Project of Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal, 1993), p. 17.

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    Aneesh Pradhan is a widely recognised performer, teacher, composer and scholar of Hindustani music. A recepient of prestigious awards, he has been recorded by many national and international record labels. He has been a regular contributor to newspapers, journals and digital publications in India and abroad, and is also the author of three books, Baaja Gaaja: Musical Instruments of India, Tabla: A Performer's Perspective, and Hindustani Music in Colonial Bombay.

    This an extract from Chasing the Raag Dream: A Look into the World of Hindustani Music, written by Aneesh Pradhan and published by Harper-Collins, 2019. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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